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Book Review: The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas

The Burning SkyTitle: The Burning Sky

Author: Sherry Thomas

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult, Romance

Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication Date: September 2013
Hardcover: 465 Pages

It all began with a ruined elixir and an accidental bolt of lightning…

Iolanthe Seabourne is the greatest elemental mage of her generation—or so she’s being told. The one prophesied for years to be the savior of The Realm. It is her duty and destiny to face and defeat the Bane, the greatest mage tyrant the world has ever known. A suicide task for anyone let alone a sixteen-year-old girl with no training, facing a prophecy that foretells a fiery clash to the death.

Prince Titus of Elberon has sworn to protect Iolanthe at all costs but he’s also a powerful mage committed to obliterating the Bane to avenge the death of his family—even if he must sacrifice both Iolanthe and himself to achieve his goal.

But Titus makes the terrifying mistake of falling in love with the girl who should have been only a means to an end. Now, with the servants of the Bane closing in, he must choose between his mission and her life.

Stand alone or series: Book 1 of the Burning Sky trilogy

How did I get this book: ARC from the Publisher

Format (e- or p-): Print ARC (from BEA)

Why did I read this book: I was excited when I first saw the cover for this book (I know, shallow), but was a little wary when I read the “he made the mistake of falling for her!” blurb. BUT, then I saw the glowing reviews roll in from trusted reviewers (not to mention this book showed up on a ton of Best of 2013 lists). I had to give this a chance…


The Burning Sky begins with one of the best opening paragraphs ever:

Just before the start of Summer Half, in April 1883, a very minor event took place at Eton College, that venerable and illustrious English public school for boys. A sixteen-year-old pupil named Archer Fairfax returned from a three-month absence, caused by a fractured femur, to resume his education.

Almost every word in the preceding sentence is false. Archer Fairfax had not suffered a broken limb. He had never before set foot in Eton. His name was not Archer Fairfax. And he was not, in fact, even a he.

This is the story of a girl who fooled a thousand boys, a boy who fooled an entire country, a partnership that would change the fate of realms, and a power to challenge the greatest tyrant the world had ever known.

Expect magic.

Archer Fairfax is, in fact, a girl named Iolanthe Seabourne – the Great Elemental Mage of her time, and desperately sought after by forces good and evil. It all begins when Iolanthe’s elixir of light is spoiled by her guardian. Desperate to fix the spell in time for the wedding, Iolanthe reads in one of her guardian’s books that any elixir can be fixed by a bolt of lightning – and she attempts to call lightning down, with immediate success.

Iolanthe’s little stunt, as it turns out, is elemental magic of unprecedented scale, drawing forces of good and evil to her power. On one side is Prince Titus, crown Prince and future ruler of Elberon, who pretends to be an apathetically spoiled sovereign. In actuality, Titus is a capable ruler single-mindedly dedicated to overthrowing the Bane (leader of the inquisition that destroyed his family, and the force that threatens to take his kingdom away). Titus and the Bane vie for control of this rogue, lightning-summoning elemental mage – if the Bane finds her first, he will kill her and absorb her powers; if Titus does, he plans on binding the mage to strengthen his cause.

All of this, of course, is unbeknownst to Iolanthe, who is simply trying to deliver on services promised to the village. Luckily for Iolanthe, Prince Titus finds her first, and rallies her to his cause – which she grudgingly joins, even though she doesn’t quite trust the crown prince (despite being blindly attracted to him and vice versa). Forced into hiding her identity and assuming a false persona – a boy named Archer Fairfax – in the non-magical world of turn of the 20th century England, Iolanthe struggles to come to grips with her power – just as she struggles with the pressing question of who she can trust in this dangerous new world.

The debut YA novel from established romance author Sherry Thomas, The Burning Sky hardly treads new ground. Indeed, the book is a blend of abundantly familiar tropes (Sweet Polly Oliver, the Orphan’s Ordeal, the Chosen/Prophesied One Who Will Save or Doom Us All, and so on). On the bright side, there’s something incredibly addictive about Thomas’ writing – filtered through the view points of heroine Iolanthe and Prince Titus, The Burning Sky is an exceptionally quick, engrossing read. Also on the positive side, the book itself has some solid ideas and potential at its core. As trope-laden as the book is, I don’t actually have anything against the brave Orphan who has been destined to save the world, or the incredibly powerful magician, or the girl who is forced into pretending to be a boy by external circumstances tropes. The problem in The Burning Sky, however, is that ALL of these tropes are bundled together in the form of a too-good-to-be-true heroine, and none of the tropes are done particularly well.

Case in point: Iolanthe, our heroine, is not just a very powerful magician; she’s the most powerful mage of her day and the only one able to call down lightning at will. She doesn’t just masquerade as the boy Archer Fairfax and barely pull it off; she’s SO convincing as a boy she becomes incredibly popular at her England boarding school. Even though she’s never played cricket before, Iolanthe (as Archer) picks up the game immediately and becomes THE BEST CRICKET PLAYER at school. You get the picture, this is annoying. Strangely, despite her overflowing Mary Sue-ish qualities, there’s something compelling about Iolanthe that kept me reading (even while I was rolling my eyes at her instant and impeccable cricket skills). Iolanthe’s fear and her desperation to survive are powerful motivators in this book, and I appreciated the times when she would actively question the motives of her Prince and everyone else around her.

Which brings me to the other main character and perspective in this book, Prince Titus. Titus is a brand of hero who is portrayed as meticulous and driven, yet noble-hearted… but at the same time is dead set on manipulating Iolanthe to achieve his own ends, at whatever cost. When Titus sees Iolanthe’s lightning, he reacts quickly and puts into motion a plan he’d been setting up ever since learning the truth of his mother’s death (the Queen was killed in the last attempted revolution against the Bane). At his nonmagical boarding school, Titus has invented a friend whom he has embellished over the years (the fictional Archer Fairfax), and plans on inserting his new BFF Great Mage into Archer’s role. Of course, this is incredibly shortsighted of Titus as the Great Mage is a young woman, not a man, and kinda sums up the issues with Titus’ character. He is the type of hero who says things like “If only I could get Iolanthe to LOVE me, this would be easier;” the type of hero who creepily takes Iolanthe’s image without her consent and makes her likeness his creepy rescue-princess in his magic fantasy training world; the type of hero who manipulates and tricks Iolanthe into staying with him and joining his cause while withholding information from her (because, you know, it’s for her own good, and Titus would know that).

On the one hand, I’m happy to see imperfect characters making tough decisions, and I get Titus’ motivations for his actions. On the other, the fact that Titus and Iolanthe end up falling in insta-love negates any other point of contention or shades of gray in terms of motivation between the pair. I AM SO TIRED OF THIS KIND OF ROMANCE, PEOPLE. It doesn’t help that the writing is super cheesy – smoldering glances, dramatic internal statements of love, Iolanthe’s initial hero-worship and breathless descriptions of her beautiful Titus in all its nauseating glory. (To be fair, it’s kinda awesome to see her lose that blind faith in her leader – but that of course is momentary and a few pages later, they’re back in the insta-love again.)

But enough of the characters and relationships! What about the story and the world? On the actual fantasy and worldbuilding side, I loved the concept of the world Thomas creates, although the magical rules defining what can and cannot be done seem fairly convenient and arbitrary. There don’t seem to be actual believable limitations on power, and as Iolanthe has ALL the power, and Titus is so skilled and impervious to all kinds of things thanks to his fanatical magical training, it’s hard to feel any fear for these characters. There are two big bad villains in this book – the Bane might be the endgame, but the true antagonist in this novel is his right hand henchwoman, the Inquisitor. The Inquisitor has great magical skill, and avoiding her detection is of driving conflict of this book… so why, then, is the Inquisitor’s demise so ridiculously EASY at the end of the book? (This character is thwarted AT GREAT DISTANCE in a sort of magical training ground-cum-portal by Iolanthe and her lightning – honestly, why didn’t she just do that to begin with? There’s also a laughable prophecy of Titus’s DEATH that is easily sidestepped by the end of the book. Sigh.)

Needless to say, I had many issues with The Burning Sky. I know I’ve been ragging on it for most of this review, but I should say that I DID finish the book and was compelled to do so in just a day – testament to Sherry Thomas’s skill at telling a story. I can see how others would love this book, but as for me? I think I’ll pass on any future installments.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:

Fire was easy.

In fact, there was nothing easier.

They said that when an elemental mage called forth flame, she stole a little from every fire in the world. That would make Iolanthe Seabourne quite the thief, gathering millions of sparks into one great combustion.

That flame she sculpted into a perfect sphere ten feet across, suspended above the rushing currents of the River Woe.

She beckoned with her fingers. Streams of water shot up and arced over the fireball. Stray droplets gleamed briefly under the sun before falling into the flame, releasing sizzles of steam.

Master Haywood, her guardian, used to love watching her play with fire. He had not been alone in his fascination. Everyone, from neighbors to classmates, had wanted her to show them how she made little fireballs dance upon her palm, the same way Iolanthe, as a child, had asked Master Haywood to wiggle his ears, clapping and laughing with delight.

Master Haywood’s interest, however, had run far deeper. Unlike others who simply wished to be entertained, he’d challenge her to make intricate, difficult patterns and draw entire landscapes with filaments of fire. And he’d say, My, but that is beautiful, and shake his head with wonder—and sometimes, something that felt almost like unease.

But before she could ask him what was the matter, he’d ruffle her hair and tell her he was taking her out for ices. There had been two years during which they’d had many, many cups of ices together, lumenberry for him and pinemelon for her, sitting by the window of Mrs. Hinderstone’s sweets shop on University Avenue, just a five-minute walk from their house on the campus of the Conservatory of Magical Arts and Sciences, the most prestigious institution of higher learning in the entire Domain.

Iolanthe hadn’t had pinemelon ice in years, but she could still taste its tart, fresh tingle on her tongue.

“My, but that is beautiful.”

You can read the full excerpt online HERE.

Rating: 5 – I didn’t hate the book, and I was compelled to finish it, but there are so many issues with the story that I can’t justify giving it any higher grade.

Reading Next: Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

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  • hapax
    January 8, 2014 at 2:43 pm

    Sometimes I think I’m the only one who absolutely loved this book. I mean, loved it.

    It’s not that I didn’t recognize all the tropes bundled together and dialed up to eleven, and I kept thinking “Holy cats, this is super-cheesy”, but darn it, it just WORKED for me. I enjoyed Iolanthe’s super-awesomeness, I adored Titus’s angsty wallowing (and, to give him credit, he completely knew he was creeping on her, and was ashamed of it), and I totally rooted for the insta-love… because frankly, if ever two melodramatic overwrought hyperhormonal teens *deserved* each other, it was these two.

    So yeah, like I said, loved it. Which kind of surprised me, because everyone raves about Thomas’s adult romances, which simply do not work for me at all.

  • AnimeJune
    January 8, 2014 at 8:09 pm

    Wow, when I first starting reading the review I was worried that you might have liked it.

    To contrast with Hapax, I have been baffled by the presence of this book on Best-Of Lists (and it actually made my worst list of 2013). The too-easy worldbuilding, the too-easy stakes, the insipid romance – and it’s all rather excruciating when you consider how *good* the stakes and the romance and the worldbuilding are in Sherry Thomas’ romances. That’s part of why I disliked this book (and Kate Elliott’s Cold Magic, as a matter of fact) – it read like it was explicitly dumbed-down. You know, because *teens* are reading it. Which infuriated me.

    The silliest thing in the book is the Dead Mother Prophesy Diary. Puh-leese. Talk about ridiculous Bill & Ted temporal theory nonsense. “I did this nonsensical thing because I had a *vision* of myself doing this nonsensical thing and that’s as good a reason to do it as any!”

  • Thea
    January 10, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    hapax – *HUGS* Well, I’m glad you loved it! I’ve read some other really wonderful, glowing reviews for this title, so you’re not alone! And I completely understand the loving a book because it just works for you, despite flaws thing. Right now I’m reading INDEPENDENT STUDY by Joelle Charbonneau and I *know* it’s a rehash of book 1/Hunger Games copycat… but I’m loving it and it just hits all my good buttons. To each their own, right!?

    I was going to ask about Thomas’s adult romances – I actually feel like I might like those better? Hmm.

    AnimeJune – I’m with you! The book has a lot of promise and I really loved the opening chapters…but so much of it did not work for me. Althought I vehemently disagree with you re: COLD MAGIC. Hee.

    And interesting that you prefer Thomas’s adult romances to this! Do you have a recommendation? I’m curious to see if I’ll like her adult stuff better!

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